A Column I Wrote About Writing, But Not Here
Posted on August 4, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
It’s over at the Tor/Forge blog. It’s about something I did while writing Lock In that I’ve never done before when writing a novel. What is that thing and why did I do it, and why was Lock In the right novel to do it with (and in)? The answers await you.
Like; a; boss.
I used to online-roleplay with someone who started putting in commas after every single word. I guess, she, wanted, to, emphasize, that, every, word, was, important. :p
Parenthesis. But I’ve programmed in Lisp.
Fellow semicolon lover here. It saddens me when writers don’t know what a well-placed semicolon can do. I wasn’t expecting semicolons when I saw the headline about pacing, but your explanation of why you decided to write Lock In that way and developing the new rhythm were very interesting. There are some authors whose writing I love love love but who have developed some tics over the years that drive me crazy, things they probably don’t even know they’re doing. Your example gives me the motivation to see what I might want to change up in my own writing.
Impressive! Don’t know if I could do it myself…. (serious fan of both semicolons and ellipses.)
Innapropriate commas get me when I’m writing a long piece. it is like my right hand has a nervous twitch; some kind of subconcious thing that just puts commas in all over the place.
I have a similar problem with ellipses, especially in dialogue. It’s a bad habit, and I intend to break it…someday.
Semicolons and em-dashes here. I can quit anytime I want to—at least, that’s my story; whether I’m sticking to it remains to be seen.
Congrats on your semicolonoscopy!
Huh. I’ve never noticed that you use a lot of semicolons. Now I’ll have to go back and look.
I’ve never used semicolons much, mostly because of how I was taught to use them (right or wrong) in English class decades ago. The teacher said to use semicolons when the two parts of the sentence can stand as individual sentences, so whenever I think of using one, I usually just end up thinking, “Why not just use two sentences?”
Maybe I’m missing out; maybe I should start using them more.
Maybe not. Now I’m questioning whether I used it correctly in that last sentence, and it makes me uncomfortable.
I love semi-colons. Love them. On the other hand (in reference to one of the above commenters), I despise ellipses, and am merciless when I am editing professionally. I once made an author cry over ellipses abuse. I felt bad, but it was a learning experience for both of us, and I was eventually forgiven.
I am reminded of the story of the young newspaper reporter who was overly fond of semicolons. In spite of admonishments from his editor, he continued to sprinkle ; throughout his stories. Finally, the editor cured him; he came out his office with a file and used it to remove the character from the reporter’s typewriter.
I love semi-colons and all things punctuation. Crafting their use on the page is as important as the words.
I’m bad about commas. In first drafts I use them like belt fed ammunition and will melt the gun barrel before before letting go of the trigger. I probably dump fully half of the commas on a first pass edit. For me, commas are the reason for most sentence reconstruction.
Interesting article. I’ve never noticed that in your writing, but then good writing tends to have unobtrusive decoration. Semicolonectomy, great!
they seem to be on their way out. Probably part of language change, where written grammar becomes more fluid, more colloquial and less prescriptivist? Perhaps. It’s something I’ve noticed in several languages (all of the European ones I know | of, romance and germanic), the semicolon is used in the same way in all of them, and the same trend towards semicolonectomy is apparent in all of them
My name is Andrew and I amyes meam an em-dash-a-holic.
Oh goody, now I can ask you a question I’ve been dying to ask you for years.
Preamble: Something that struck me about REDSHIRTS was that there is an almost complete lack of what I call “set dressing and costuming.” You have characters who talk to each other and you tell us what they’re doing, but there aren’t descriptive passages of what they look like, what their surroundings look like, what they’re wearing, etc. It’s almost like listening to a radio play.
It caught my attention because that is the stuff I am horribly weak at (I got dealt the dialogue card, which is très cool, but I’m still far from playing with a full hand (take that however you want)). Seeing you do this in REDSHIRTS with such success greatly encouraged me to give fiction a try, which I was more than slightly dubious about. So, in that vague authorial karmic sense, I owe you one.
Question: So, was that something you set out consciously to do, like the semilcolon thing, or did it just work out that way?
pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
— Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
— Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
Wow, I thought the very first commenter would do this. And nobody has,.. so it falls to me.
Total semicolons in that essay: 14
Total paragraphs without a semicolon: 3
There was a peak of semicolon use in paragraph 6, with a total of 4 (almost every sentence has one). Then semicolon use tapers off considerably, with only one in the rest of the essay. It was almost as if you were illustrating pacing with and without. Uncanny.
I don’t intentionally not describe things, but I do notice I tend not to describe things (or people) unless doing so serves a purpose. This may have to do with the fact that as a reader I tend to zip over description and find it boring.
That essay reminds me of an anecdote about John Irving; that he was so irked by the fact that people were reading “The World According to Garp” so fast that he went through and layered hundreds if not thousands of semicolons into his next book (“The Hotel New Hampshire”) just to get people to slow down. (“Garp” does have semicolons, but not like much of Irving’s later work.)
I’ve been on a semicolon kick lately; they’re just so convenient. Dashes used to be my guilty pleasure but the formatting on them seems to be somewhat unreliable these days.
That was fascinating! Thanks for writing it. I like writing advice like this: specific advice on a very technical matter and why it helps. Writing advice often tends to be a tad on the less-than-concrete side, so something like this is genuinely helpful.
The regular uses of semicolons:
1. To separate related but independent clauses of a compound sentence (e.g. where the second clause clarifies or gives examples of the first). “He’s always sure of himself; that happens when you have too much education and not enough sense.”
2. Before conjunctive adverbs (e.g. “however,” “therefore”) and transitional phrases (e.g. “in fact,” “so far”). “Blinding accidents are common in the mines; hence, we do a brisk business in prosthetic eyes.”
Exception: with regular conjunctions like “for,” “but,” “so,” etc., use a comma. “The route she took is treacherous, but it is survivable.”
3. To separate items in a series that are complex or have internal punctuation. “The landing force will consist of mechanized and airmobile infantry; light and heavy tanks; and towed and self-propelled artillery.”